Wish you could step through a magic portal to a place where you feel calm and at ease? Good news - you can! The way you breathe has the power to change your physical, mental and emotional state. While it may not be as simple as just stepping through the wardrobe and finding yourself in Narnia, you can transform yourself from stressed and spread too thin, to rested and relaxed by tuning in to the magic of your own respiratory diaphragm.
The respiratory diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle. Shaped like an umbrella, the diaphragm separates the heart and lungs from the rest of the organs below it, originating on the inner surface of the lower six ribs, inner part of the xiphoid process and upper two or three lumbar vertebrae. The central tendon of the diaphragm is attached to the connective tissue that surrounds the lungs. On inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and pulls the central tendon down, drawing oxygen-rich air into the lungs. On exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes, releases the pull on the central tendon, allowing the lungs to deflate, pushing carbon-dioxide rich air out. That is, when we are breathing diaphragmatically, also know as belly breathing or abdominal breathing.
Of course during certain types of physical activity, we can’t always breath diaphragmatically. There are many times we need to maintain a braced core to safely perform an exercise, holding the abdominal muscles in tension to stabilize the spine. This thoracic breathing (also known as chest breathing) restricts the downward movement of the diaphragm. Unfortunately most of us don’t just find ourselves breathing shallow into the chest when we are bracing our core for a deadlift. Being stressed out, dealing with trauma, having other postural problems caused by injuries, or just a lack of postural awareness are also times when the diaphragm gets bypassed in favor of more shallow breathing.
Now, here’s a really cool thing about the respiratory diaphragm: it is controlled by both the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. This means that while the diaphragm will keep functioning on its own so that we keep breathing, we can also exert control over it. The somatic nervous system innervates our skeletal muscles, and we have the ability to control how we contract and relax these muscles. The autonomic nervous system controls our internal organs and functions without our control. The two main branches of the autonomic nervous system are:
• Sympathetic aka “Fight or Flight” – When the sympathetic nervous system is switched on, the heart rate is accelerated, adrenaline dumps into the blood stream to increase reaction time, breathing is shallow and rapid, cortisol levels become higher and signal glucose to be released into the bloodstream to give you extra energy.
• Parasympathetic aka “Rest, Digest and Repair” – When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the heart rate slows, digestion is stimulated, and growth hormone is released to repair the body’s tissues.
The reality is that we all spend way more time in a state of sympathetic dominance. It’s the world we lived in even before a global pandemic. We work high stress jobs, we commute in crazy traffic, we wear a lot of hats and burn the candle at both ends. Not to mention the things we do in our “down time” aren’t all that down regulating – watching TV (I love police procedural shows – not very relaxing!) scrolling through social media, or reading the latest news headlines. Even some of the things that are good for us, like exercise, take us into a sympathetic state.
Because of this, it’s imperative that we do something to deliberately activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The good news is, giving yourself some “rest, digest and repair” time is simple, and you already have everything you need to step through the parasympathetic portal! This is where things get magical! As I already mentioned, the diaphragm is controlled by the autonomic nervous system so it keeps moving to keep you breathing without you having to think about it. But it is also controlled by the somatic nervous system, which allows us to exert some control over how we relax and contract the diaphragm.
Abdominal breathing (belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) is the most calming way to breathe and affect a change on the nervous system. Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, close your eyes and get comfortable. Place your hands on your belly, and become aware of the belly rising as you inhale, and falling as you exhale. This might take some practice, but see if you can do it without extra effort like “pushing” the belly out as you breathe. Just see if you can become a witness to your own breath, and let your body take over. You can mentally say “belly rise” as you breathe in, and “belly fall” as you breathe out. As you get more familiar with this technique, see if you can let your awareness of the breath expand to not just the front of you, but your waistline and low back drawing in and out as well.
Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates a major parasympathetic nerve called the Vagus Nerve. When the Vagus is stimulated, it acts as the body’s “off” switch, slowing down heart rate, respiration rate and metabolic function. So while we can’t directly control our autonomic nervous system, we can use the breath to help us shift from a sympathetic into a parasympathetic state.
I always find it easier to do breath work and conscious relaxation when my body is prepared to help my breath and my mind relax. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you know how much easier it feels to come into savasana at the end of class than it would at the beginning. You don’t necessarily need a full hour training session or yoga class, but you will probably find you can breathe and relax better after some kind of stretching, a stroll around the block, or a few minutes of self massage with balls or foam rollers.
Here is a simple practice you can try when you want something other than the “belly rise/belly fall” practice: Get comfortable in a reclined posture, find abdominal breathing, and as you are ready, begin silently counting exhales starting at “10” down to “1”. See how slow and easy you can make your exhale. If you lose you place in the counting, just start over at 10.
The more you practice diaphragmatic breathing, the more you will be able to access it even when you aren’t able to “warm up” your body and lay down on the ground. Over time you will find you can tap into this type of breathing even during stressful situations, when you really need it most - stepping through that magic portal any time you give yourself the gift of a few minutes to slow down and breathe!
Strength & Love,